Vangelis, the Greek composer and musician whose synth-driven work infused great drama into movie soundtracks like Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, has died at the age of 79. His representatives said he died at a hospital in France where he was being treated.
Vangelis was born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassiou in 1943 and won an Oscar in 1981 for his soundtrack to Chariots of Fire. Its uplifting piano motif became world famous, reaching #1 on the US charts, as did the accompanying soundtrack album.
Largely self-taught in music, Vangelis grew up in Athens and in 1963 formed his first band called Forminx, playing the popular music of the time: fast rock ‘n’ roll, stirring ballads and Beatles covers, with Vangelis providing the organ lines.
They separated in 1966, and Vangelis became a paid writer and producer, working for other musicians and contributing scores to Greek films. Two years later, he made his way to Paris to further his career, where he formed the prog rock quartet Aphrodite’s Child with Greek expats, including Demis Roussos. Their single “Rain and Tears” was a hit across Europe, topping the French, Belgian and Italian charts and reaching the UK Top 30.
After their split – Vangelis considered the world of commercial pop “very boring” – he returned to film and television music. He turned down an invitation to replace Rick Wakeman on Yes’s keyboards, moved to London and signed a solo deal with RCA Records: his LPs Heaven and Hell (1975) and Albedo 0.39 (1976) each reached the UK Top 40, the former also used to score Carl Sagan’s popular TV series Cosmos. The association with Yes was finally severed later in the decade when he teamed up with Jon Anderson of the band for the duo Jon and Vangelis, whose debut album charted in the Top 5.
Vangelis had continued his film music work through the 1970s, but it reached its commercial peak in the 1980s. Chariots of Fire became inseparable from Vangelis’ timeless theme, and the music became synonymous with slow-motion sports montages. “My music doesn’t try to evoke emotions like joy, love or pain in the audience. It just fits the image because I’m working at the moment,” he later explained.
His score for Blade Runner is equally celebrated because, through the use of long, malevolent synthesizer notes, it evokes a sinister future version of Los Angeles where robots and humans coexist awkwardly; Saxophones and lush ambient passages reinforce the film’s romantic and poignant moments. “It’s turned out to be a very prophetic film – we live in a kind of blade runner world now,” he said in 2005.
Later in the decade he scored Costa-Gavras’ Palme d’Or-winning political drama Missing, starring Jack Lemmon; the drama The Bounty by Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins; and the Mickey Rourke starring Francesco. In 1992 he worked again with Blade Runner director Ridley Scott on the film 1492: Paradise Conquest, and in the 1990s he produced the soundtrack for Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Jacques Cousteau documentaries.
Vangelis drew on Greek instrumentation alongside the typical orchestras used in the film score of Oliver Stone’s 2004 classic epic Alexander.
His most recent score is for El Greco, a 2007 Greek biopic of the Renaissance painter. The Greek artist, who moved to Spain and earned his nickname there, was greatly admired by Vangelis, who composed albums written by him in 1995 and 1998 were inspired and named after him.
Vangelis, consistently acclaimed for his evocative theme Chariots of Fire, has also been commissioned by sports organizations to provide music for major events including the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. He also wrote ballet scores and music for stage productions of Medea, The Tempest and other plays.
Solo releases stayed alongside his commissioned work and included occasional collaborations with singers such as Paul Young.
A fascination with outer space found a voice in Rosetta in 2016 dedicated to the spacecraft of the same name, and Nasa named his 1993 play Mythodea (which he allegedly wrote in an hour) to be the official music of the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission, his last Album, 2021’s Juno to Jupiter, was inspired by NASA’s Juno probe and included footage of its launch and how the probe itself works in space.
Among those paying tribute to Vangelis was Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who praised “a pioneer of electronic sound”.